Like a two-for-one drink special or a boxful of beer, this bracingly strong collection may prove intoxicating.

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ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR

A sense of detachment permeates the lives of the women in this short story collection, yet readers will find themselves riveted.

They drink too much, keep company with the wrong men (or perhaps the men are right and they are wrong), and moon around their lives like bored teens with nothing to do but find trouble on a sultry summer day. Some have money, others are seriously strapped for cash. Most are educated, all are smart—even if they don’t make smart choices. The women who slouch around the centers of Miller’s (The Last Days of California, 2014, etc.) short stories—drinking dive-bar beer or mixed drinks made strong, ordering in pizza or getting fast food from the drive-thru lane, binge-watching TV, and looking for love in all the wrong places—are all about squandered potential, loneliness, and listlessness, distance where closeness should be and vice versa. They may be frustratingly disconnected, indifferent to the men who love them, attracted to those who maybe don’t. Their relationships with boyfriends, husbands, and exes, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors are complicated, yet many seem stuck. What's holding them in place? Laziness? Fear? “I guess my main problem with her is that she doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything,” the protagonist of one story, “The House on Main Street,” a divorced Southern grad student, says of her roommate, Melinda, a New Yorker who eats different foods (fresh meats she buys at the farmers market), writes different poetry (“about apples and trees and never become more than apples and trees”), and beds a different sort of man (“Baptist and clean-cut and gets along well with everyone”) than she. When Melinda is out, Miller’s protagonist sneaks into her bedroom to look at her stuff, marveling at how distinct the trappings of her roommate's life are from her own, never touching a thing. “I just stand in her space feeling like an intruder,” she says. The reader may respond the same way to the 16 stories in this collection, which feel both homey and exotic, limning lives at once familiar and distinctly their own.

Like a two-for-one drink special or a boxful of beer, this bracingly strong collection may prove intoxicating.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63149-218-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2016

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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EXHALATION

Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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